From now on I’ll be posting regular snippets from the life of Jack Lockwood, the hero of my Jack Lockwood Mystery Series of novels that are available on Kindle for just 77p, or 99C (see below)
I hope you enjoy the first one:
Last night I couldn’t sleep. Kept getting up and walking around to try and clear my head. There was that song running around over and over, The night has a thousand eyes, by Bobby Vee. I heard it on a Golden Oldies radio programme and now the lovely melody was running through my head and I just couldn’t get rid of it. Bobby Vee had recorded it long before I was born, but for some weird reason it evoked all the magic of the sixties for me: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Cliff Richard, the Everly brothers. So I was thinking about the past already, but my mind drifted back to a past that was a lot further back than the sixties.
It doesn’t help my peace of mind living alone in this gatehouse. There’s a history here, and sometimes I feel as if it’s a history I don’t like. A hundred-and-fifty years ago it straddled the lane from the woods, its central section wide open, to allow the horses and carriages to pass underneath the arch and on up the long drive to Allingham Grange, the mansion which has long since been demolished to make way for the luxury flats that sit up on the hill, all new brickwork and modern glazing. They’ve built a proper road now of course, so all the Mercedes and 4X4s troop up Eternity Drive towards their big integral garages beside the little houses that are mostly identical to each other, although the ‘Allingham Residences’: three and four bedroom detached homes are quite a bit more substantial than the ‘Allingham Standard’ homes, that are mostly two bedroom flats.
I’d bought the gatehouse some years ago and got permission to make alterations to the listed building, even to build an extension at the back. Yesterday evening I’d been rooting around in the loft and found a big box of very old books, and I was so intrigued by them that I brought them into my living room and tipped them out onto the floor. One of them had a date in the front: 1889, and was clearly a child’s school textbook, a geography book with maps of the world, with lots of the countries depicted in pink, the colour of the old British Empire.
It was a cold night, frost on the windows, the grey ash of the log fire a cruel memory of last night’s leaping flames. I made myself some hot chocolate and sat at the table, leafing through the old books again. All around was the musty, cheesy smell of old paper, that took me back to my childhood and my own, notably unacademic, schooldays. Though I’m not a natural student, I’ve always loved books, especially old books, with their leather covers and thick yellowed pages. Amongst them was an old photograph album, with ancient sepia photos pasted onto each page, with names and dates, ranks of gloomy forbidding men with large whiskers and mousy ladies, hidden inside voluminous bonnets and coats.
What should I do with all these volumes, I wondered? Nominally, of course, they belonged to me since they were in the Gatehouse when I bought it, but there was a chance that whoever had once owned these personal items might still having living descendants, and I’d like to return them to whoever it might be.
Then, when I was flicking through A pictorial history of Cambridgeshire, something dropped onto the floor. I stooped down and picked it up. It was a large slip of paper with swirling extravagant lettering on it, on yellowing thin paper. At the top right hand corner was a date, 7 September 1901, and in the middle were the words The Canterbury and District Mutual Bank Company Ltd, below here Pay, with the P very large and scrolling across the page. And in neat copperplate handwriting was written Mrs Lavinia Covington, and on the line below that was a signature, that looked like Jonathan Ballantyne.
It was just like a modern-day cheque, apart from the fancy style of lettering, and the name of the bank which I’d never heard of: presumably it had gone out of business or merged with a bigger branch many years ago. There was no ‘paid’ stamp on it, so, apparently, this cheque had not been presented to the recipient’s bank. And a thousand pounds in 1902 was a fortune. A mystery that would now never be solved.
Ballantyne. I remembered hearing that that was the name of the family who used to live at Allingham Grange, the large mansion that had been demolished in 1985, to make way for the current residential development of flats and apartments, the Allingham Estate.
By this time dawn had broken, and I was ruminating on the conundrum of the old cheque that had never been cashed. Had the person who’d received the cheque died before being able to present it to his or her bank? Had the writer of the cheque asked them not to use it, paid them in some other way? Surely in that case it would have been destroyed?
I had breakfast, dozed for an hour, then reached the conclusion that this box of books, the photo album, and the un-cashed cheque, belonged to the descendants of the people who lived in the big house, if any Ballantynes remained living. And if, indeed, I could trace any of them, they would be probablyt be keen to see their property, so the least I could do was make some effort to contact them. A search of the local phone book showed just one Ballantyne, living in a residential area of nearby Canterbury, in Monroe Gardens. What was the harm in driving into town to see if L A Ballantyne happened to be a descendant of the Ballantyne clan who had once been Lords of the Manor? He or she was unlikely to be in, but it was worth going, just in case.
Monroe Gardens was a pretty ordinary sort of road in a quiet part of town , a turning off Stour Street. Towards the end I found the number I was looking for: 74. Parked outside was a grubby white van, and two big men in tee shirts, dirty jeans and scruffy trainers were unfastening ladders from its roof. The taller of the two, the one who had a shaved head and a large red pustule on his cheek, spat in the road as he manhandled his end of the ladder.
Going up the front drive I lifted my hand towards the bell but before I pressed it, it opened up, to reveal a tiny old lady with short silver hair, and a brown face that was as shrivelled as a walnut. She was dressed in slacks and an old sweater. And she looked scared.
“Yes?” she asked nervously. “What is it now?” She looked at me first, before staring beyond me, directing anxious wary glances over my shoulder towards the two men, who were now clattering their ladder against the house.
“My name’s Jack Lockwood, and I live in what used to be the Gatehouse to Allingham Grange,” I began.
“The Gatehouse?” I had her full attention, and for a few moments the hunted, wary expression left her eyes. “I passed it the other day. Someone’s renovating it, converting it into a house. Is that you?”
“Yes, that’s me. The thing is, I was in the loft area and found a box of books that I imagine belong to whoever used to own the Grange. I knew the family was called Ballantyne, and I found your name in the phone book. I wondered if you were a descendent.”
The smile transformed her face. “Yes, I’m Lydia Ballantyne. I had an older brother, but he died recently. As far as I know we’re the last of the Ballantynes – at least the ones descended from the Allingham Ballantynes.”
“Good. Then shall I get them from the car? There are photographs and books, and something rather special.”
“Really? My goodness, how interesting…”
She was beginning to say something else when one of the builders, the one who had long greasy hair and a tight mean mouth, pushed in front of me, staring down at her, without so much as acknowledging my existence. “Bad news my darling. Afraid it’s much worse then we reckoned at first.”
Somehow the my darling grated on my nerves. So did his patronising attitude, his leer, the way he put his hand against her wall and sprawled there letting his fat gut hang over his belt, as if he owned the house.
“See, love, it’s not just a few tiles, oh dear me no, darling, all them tiles up on the main roof is blown.”
“Don’t wanna get technical with you darling. Thing is, them clay tiles defragment over time. We call them blown, because they expand and split, and shatter to pieces, on account of the frost getting inside ’em see? You’re lucky we noticed in time, if the rain had got into the roof you’d have had rotten timbers and all sorts of nasties. We’ve gotta replace them all, just no point in messing about.”
“Will it be expensive?”
“Would be if anyone else was doing it love, but we’ll give ya a good price for cash, yeah? So you give me a monkey – that’s five hundred quid in cash – and I can get down the suppliers and buy them in now, and we can start the job soon as they’re here.”
“If you think it’s really necessary, I suppose–”
“–Trust me darling, we’re doing you a big favour.” He stepped closer. As he clapped a hand onto her shoulder I noticed her flinch. “I’m Terry, my mate over there is Pete. Tell you what, why don’t we start stripping them off right now, no point hanging around. And we won’t say no to a cuppa, my darling. Bring it out to us would ya? Two sugars for Pete, but I’m sweet enough as I am.”
I slipped away from his charm offensive and stared up at the roof, the tiles of which the man had claimed were ‘completely blown’. In the past I worked as a builder, and I knew all about delamination of old clay tiles. The ladder was leaning up against the house, and, while no one was looking, I climbed up to gutter level and carefully examined the tiles. I could see a couple of cracked ones over by the chimney stack, but all the others looked to be in remarkably good condition. Not a single one of them was blown: blown tiles have an easily noticeable frizzy look to their outer surface, cause by the breakdown of the glaze, and at their edges are a series of split lines. I pulled at one that was a couple of rows back from the gutter, and slid it out from under the row above and pulled it away from the roof.
Still carrying the liberated tile, I climbed down and assessed the situation. The man was still chattering away to the old lady in her doorway. He seemed to be trying to shoulder his way past her into the hallway, while his mate was rooting around in the back of the van. He looked up as I came closer.
“Was you just up our ladder?” he asked as he turned towards me, frowning, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
“You got a fucking nerve. Had a good mind to pull it out from under you. Clear off, mate, before my mate Terry comes back and gives you knuckle sandwich.”
“Do you know what a blown roof tile looks like?” I asked him, shoving the tile in front of his face.
“Your mate Terry just told the lady that all the tiles were blown. They’re not.”
He stepped forward and grabbed me by the lapels. “What’s your game, mate? Do you wanna get fucked? Cos that’s what’s gonna happen.”
“What’s going on?”
Terry had left the lady at the door and was sprinting towards us. The old lady hung back, fidgeting with the sleeve of her sweater.
“This interfering arsehole said–”
I knocked his hand away and moved towards Lydia Ballantyne, showing her the tile in my hand. “Excuse me Mrs Ballantyne, but your roof is perfectly sound. I know about these things, and I can promise you there’s no earthly reason for you to have those tiles replaced.”
She looked from me to the two men who were getting more and more furious by the second.
“Fuck off and mind your own business!” snarled Terry, exposing gaps between his few yellowing teeth. He dived toward me, but when he tried to grab me I backed away.
Mrs Ballantyne was running back to her house, evidently terrified.
Terry slammed me up against the house wall, his fetid breath an inch from my face, his hands on my throat, while his friend loitered nearby, having picked up a long piece of heavy-looking timber. “What’s your fucking game? You wanna nick the job for yourself?”
Instinct took over. Instinct and my long experience from my bare-knuckle boxing days. I twisted sideways. The punch to his gut took effect. He let go, staggering backwards. Before his friend had a chance to do anything, I smashed my fist into Terry’s Neanderthal nose twice, two thwack thwacks, using the edge of my knuckles, as I’d been taught. The angle of smash was calculated to inflict maximum damage with minimum risk to my fist.
Blood from his mangled nose spattered everywhere. Pete, less confident now, was moving away. Without a word, he lifted the ladder and hoisted it up onto the van’s roof, while Terry held a dirty tissue to his blood-covered face.
The ladder was barely secured to the roof as they drove off.
Apparently Terry and Peter had called early that morning, persuading her to let them look at her roof. She’d been too intimidated to argue with them, and was hugely relieved when I explained that the damp problems she was experiencing, that had allowed her to be persuaded she did have a serious roof problem, was clearly due to the couple of cracked tiles I’d seen when I was up there.
Half an hour later we were sitting in her living room, the box of books opened, its contents spread around the floor in front of her. To see her face light up as she looked at the old photographs, telling me the names of long dead relatives, was a joy.
The un-cashed cheque was something she just could not understand.
“One of life’s great mysteries,” she said. “Though I do remember talk of my great grandfather getting one of the servant girls into trouble.” She coughed in embarrassment. “A baby, you know. This could have been a very very generous payoff.”
“Which she was too proud to accept?”
“Perhaps. Though it’s hard to believe anyone could have such principles.”
“But surely,” I said, “a servant wouldn’t have had a bank account?”
“Of course she wouldn’t, but that man was so out of touch with reality, how ordinary people lived, that he wouldn’t have realised such a thing. Besides, there are always ways by way of solicitors to cash cheques, especially a cheque for this amount of money.”
Mrs Ballantyne turned towards me and smiled, and in her expression I could see she was still beautiful, the remains of a lovely woman’s features had never left her face, lined and wrinkled by age as it was. “I really don’t know how to thank you enough Jack. I’m extremely short of money. Those men insisted that the roof job was vital, and I was terrified to spend the little capital I’ve got. Are you absolutely sure the roof isn’t in a dreadful state?”
“Certain. But I’ve got a friend who’s a builder – a real builder – and he can come round and set your mind at rest if you like. By the way, I also happen to know a little bit about secondhand books. And last night I noticed that at least one of these appears to be a first edition. I think it could be worth a lot of money.”
“I really don’t know. Possibly thousands.”
“You knew that. You could have kept it. Yet you tried to trace the rightful owner?”
“Of course,” I replied. “Rather like the servant who your ancestor got into trouble and offered to buy her off, and she refused his cheque. A matter of principle.”
If you liked this short story, why not download one of the first two in the Jack Lockwood Mystery Series, Rock’n’Roll Suicide http://amzn.to/XVQ9GF
And Doppelganger http://amzn.to/X7yyx2